It was obvious from the very first shot of the pre-show to AEW’s “Double Or Nothing” pay-per-view on Sunday night. It was the first full-house crowd of any televised wrestling show since the pandemic started (Wrestlemania was half-full both nights), and you could tell the difference in the energy almost immediately. Even in the evening sunshine of Jacksonville, and with everyone there apparently sticking to the wrestling/punk rock fan credo to never abandon black t-shirts, which must have led to a high level of discomfort and curious aroma. The practically frothing exuberance of the crowd just spilled out of the television set.
Even the performers in the pre-show match, Serena Deeb and Riho, were greeted with raucous welcomes from the Daley’s Place crowd. Neither are what you’d call household names, though highly respected by the AEW die-hards (as well they should be). And both put on an excellent match, no doubt enhanced by the extra juice from a crowd simply delirious to be back at a show again.
And that’s how it went all night. Every entrance was cheered as if it was Odysseus returning to Ithaca, because in some ways it was. Even though AEW got a little big-headed and opted for a nearly four-hour show when most of its PPVs have clocked in at under three, the energy never wavered. Matches had that little extra pop, or snap, or edge, or whatever word you prefer. There are many choices, because it’s so hard to quantify and so easily forgotten in the year-plus we haven’t had a live crowd at shows. You can’t identify that extra zip to proceedings until you see it, and you can’t describe it when it goes missing. But it’s what brings all of us back to wrestling shows again and again.
Some, like myself, have called wrestling Shakesperian, not because of the epic tales it is capable of telling. But because the original performances of Shakespeare’s work in The Globe and The Rose were not merely displayed in front of the audience. They were performed “amongst” it, as in there was interaction and contributions from those both on-and-off stage. Monologues were delivered at audience members, sometimes with true venom in order to get the point across. Protagonists cheered and antagonists booed. There was a push-and-pull. The audience was in the story, not just being told it.
That’s what wrestling is at its best. A push-and-pull between those in the ring and those in the crowd, feeding off each other and bringing each to heights neither could reach on its own. It’s not simply a performance to be watched, but one to be immersed in. Even if it’s just your local indie show with some wrestler’s grandma swearing at a chosen heel (every wrestling fan has seen this phenomenon and it is every bit as awesome as you’d think). It’s that interaction.
While I’ve been “meh” on Sting’s return to AEW, and many more have been flat out against it, you couldn’t help but smile at the AEW crowd going completely apeshit whenever he did anything (which he did just well enough to not make anyone feel sheepish). The roar that greeted his Scorpion Death Drop to end the match would have rivaled any playoff overtime goal. The howls of frustration, tempered by the joy of simply being there in the first place, at every false finish that denied Orange Cassidy a win in the triple-threat for the AEW championship was palpable (probably the match of the night, and at least a stark reminder why we put up with Kenny Omega’s goofy shit the past few months, because in the end we know he’ll have matches like this that make it all worth it). Even those of us at home were watching our shoulders slump through the couch at every kick-out at two.
Yeah, I could pick holes in the company deciding to end the show with an Inner Circle victory in the Stadium Stampede match that basically undoes all the storytelling that had come before between them and The Pinnacle, merely so a sold out Daley’s Place could all sing “Judas” together. But fuck, these people, we have been waiting 15 goddamn months to sing “Judas” in unison together. I’ve been singing it to my dog for months if only to marginally fill the void (doesn’t work). Can we really become so jaded that we can’t just enjoy that?
Both AEW and WWE should really be commended for doing their best without the most basic element to wrestling over the past year. Not everything worked, but everything was worth trying. But this is what it’s supposed to be, and based on what we’ve seen at Mania and on Sunday, both companies can look forward to simply ravenous houses when they return to the road full-time next month. Which will only enhance both products, because a hot crowd can elevate a so-so match in the same way a completely dead crowd can flatten a really good match.
Overall, the whole night just felt like a release. Euphoria. There’s still some ground to cover, our problems aren’t going anywhere, but at least for a couple of hours, we can get together and scream our lungs bloody over some of the dumbest shit imaginable and not even care. That’s worth more than a little.